Broader Horizons

Following are recommended books, CDs, and DVDs, that span a wide range of interests, but share some common qualities (yours to guess).  If you have made it this far, enjoy...

Short cut to: Fiction Books, Non-Fiction Books, CDs, DVDs, and the truly unique Gallery of Horrible Earthquake Movies

Note: The qualifier "of the Semester," when present, indicates when it was recommended as part of an engineering class — because even though engineering is a noble passion, there is more to life than engineering.  I also confess to having authored the brief reviews/comments that describe some titles.

Fiction Books ("Coups de Coeur")

Hyperlinks will bring you to the corresponding Amazon.com page

  • Brave New World (by Aldous Huxley):
    One of a few masterpieces oft cited to illustrate the definition of “dystopia,” written as a satirical warning against a frightening future, much of the utopia that “Brave New World” describes is (scarily) already here, or soon to be.  As a minimum, no one should be allowed to be born in a capitalistic society before having read this entertaining and well written novel.
  • Changing Places (by David Lodge):
    As the epitome of the “campus follies” genre, “Changing Places” is a must read for those either contemplating an academic career, or already caught in its dementia. Although parts of the novel reflect on issues and concerns of a few decades ago, contemporary equivalences abound and are easy to substitute – after all, human nature today is just as flawed as it was then.  A light read with much tongue-in-cheek humor.
  • Les Belles Soeurs: (Revised) (by Michel Tremblay):
    A play between book covers rarely measure-up to the “live happening” itself.  This is particularly evident with “Les Belles Soeurs” as one must hear the vivid rhythmic lamentations recited by the sisters, in unison without expression, like a requiem for the lost hope of a meaningful life, to feel their dark despair and appreciate the innovative signature of the author.  Nonetheless, while waiting for an opportunity to see the play, the written word also succeeds in conveying the forceful message.  To be read in the original Quebecois slang version if at all possible. 
  • Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (by Samuel Beckett):
    As an absurdist philosophical exploration on the meaning of life (or lack of), it entertains in the dark perspective that life itself is a comedy, with or without a punch line, when one spends it waiting for something else than life itself.  “Waiting for Godot” is very much an acquired taste.  Reading the book has to be less satisfying that seeing the play, but this shortcoming is mitigated by the fact that it is generally performed with a minimalist décor.
  • Cyrano De Bergerac (by Edmond Rostand):
    Best enjoyed in its superior French version, Cyrano is as “classy” as it gets. Simple, yet most effective, full of humor yet very sad.  It is both a touching love story, and the horrible testimony of a flawed human nature constantly fooled by appearances.
  • Frankenstein (Penguin Classics) (by Mary Shelley):
    Thanks to a string of Hollywood’s idiotic executives focused on cheap thrills, decades of bonehead movies have used Frankenstein in their title, but have kept nothing of the original story.  As a result, readers that grab this title seeking a horror story (gory or not) stand to be disappointed.  Mary Shelley’s story, which must be read in full appreciation of the style and sensibilities of the 19th century, is actually the sad story of a creature rejected by its creator.  Love and love denied, revenge and forgiveness, rejection and acceptance, right and wrong – and how human judgment is tainted by appearances.  In a century where image is all and beauty is mistaken for intelligence, Frankenstein’s story is all too contemporary.
  • Animal Farm: Centennial Edition (by George Orwell):
    Once written as a parody of the communist system, it actually works just as well as a contemporary parody of Corporate America.  The pigs are ingrained in the corporate culture – from Wall Street to Big-Box-Marts – and there is no shortage of dumb horses working to death to support them.  Certainly not the author’s intent, but an extension that makes sense to anyone who has seen how small cliques of egomaniacs have managed to plunder the companies they drove into bankruptcy.  Barring an unexpected accelerated evolution of human nature, this is a classic that will forever remain relevant (and entertaining).
  • Bad Karma (by David Safier)
    Extremely light beach-reading – which is sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered.  The entertaining story of a shallow talk-show host, killed at the peak of her vanity, that must navigate her way to nirvana, one reincarnation at the time, from low-level to higher-lever life forms, and discovers on that journey some small bits on the meaning of life.  A farce, in the literary sense.
  • Fall 2012    The Emancipating Death of a Boring Engineer by Michel Bruneau
    Of course
  • Fall 2013    The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
    Six pages are all it takes to determine if you want to read the remaining 480. A novelist's novel.
  • Spring 2014    An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Broke Clarke
    Nobody can control how life unfolds - but some can't more than other... The meandering, dark, and quirky tale of a poor sap. An absurdist story, in an original wrapper.

Non-Fiction Book of the Semester

Hyperlinks will bring you to the corresponding Amazon.com page

  • Spring 2012    Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges
    Novels that describe such grim prospects are referred to as dystopian literature.  The problem is that Empire of Illusion is not a novel – and that it doesn’t describe the future, but our present reality where everything and everybody has become a commodity.  Pessimists will enjoy this dark essay on the modern culture of entertainment that fancies style over substance, promotes image over wisdom, and fosters gullibility (when not outright stupidity) for the benefits of mega-egos and manipulators
  • Spring 2014    OPUS by Berkeley Breathed: The Complete Sunday Strips from 2003-2008 by Berkeley Breathed
    A "political and social commentary" - in a thinly veiled disguise.
  • Fall 2014    The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation by Drew Westin
    Provides a valuable perspective on how elections have become an applied exercice in psychological manipulations.  Although written at a time when one party alone followed those recipies, both parties now use the same tactics (same game, different playbooks).

CD(s) of the Semester

DVD of the Semester

The Gallery of Horrible Earthquake Movies

    The purpose here is not to comment on the quality of the scripts (because most storylines stick to formula for the genre) or acting (because some movies showcased A-list actors on the marquee, while others hired those in the studio parking lot that held highest their "Will work for food" sign).  Rather, the purpose here is to comment on the credibly of the earthquake damage (as depicted by a film industry that must embellish, for box-office benefits).  IMDB links are also provided for the deeply curious.

  • Earthquake [Blu-ray]
    For unknown sociological reasons, the 1970's were sort of the haydays of disaster movies (see here).  Topics covered ranged from sinking boat ("The Poseidon Advanture"), air disaster ("Airport"), high-rise fire ("The Towering Inferno"), and many more, including, of course, earthquake.  "Earthquake" is the grand-daddy of earthquake movies.  Beyond being a "classic", it is the film that lauched "Sensurround" in movies theaters, a technology that pumped sub-audio waves at 120 decibels to immerse the audience in earthquake waves.  Without that rumble, it's just another cookie-cutted diaster movie, with an all-star cast - although it is a "classic".  As for the earthquake damage: "B" for effort, as we are talking about mid-70's special effects here, after all.  (IMDB Spec
  • Aftershock: Earthquake in New York
    Surprising.  Bravo for looking at an earthquake outside of California (although, arguably, Hollywood went overboard, for effect).  Notwithstanding the exageration, maybe the most credible set of earthquake damage of the bunch.  "A-".  (IMDB Spec
  • Aftershock (Again, due to severe shortage of original titles)
    (Spoiler alert) This Chinese production cleverly used the 1976 Tangshan and 2008 Sichuan earthquakes as bookmarks to human drama, weaving 32 years of China's history into a  tearjerker that is surprisingly watchable (and probably even so in its IMAX version).  Although predictable (by those who know their seismic history), it is a testimonial to the 250,000 who died during the 1976 event.  B+. (IMDB Spec)
  • The Impossible
    And now, tsunami stories... Not surprising, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, it was just a matter of time for Hollywood to try to cash-in. Although, in fairness, this one is actually watchable.  According to Mr. Cranky's rating scale (http://www.mrcranky.com),
  • it might have received only get "1 bomb".  (IMDB Spec)
  • The Great Los Angeles Earthquake
    Nothing memorable here.  Made-for-TV movie, produced after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to capitalize on the public's sudden awareness of the risk in California, it preceeded the Northridge earthquake (Los Angeles) by about 3 years (both the movie and real earthquake were about hidden faults, but the similarities stop there).  "C" because there's been worse.  (IMDB Spec)
  • 10.5
    Supreme package for those ignoramus who like 3 hours doses of nonsense.  A movie in which Southern California literally separates from the United States.  A well deserved "F" across the board.  Mind-bogling: A sequel was produced as a TV mini-series.  (IMDB Spec)
  • The Day the Earth Moved
    As the movie apparently could only afford to destroy 5 homes and a gas station in a hellhole in the middle of the desert, they were trashed beyond artistic license (with the means available in 1974).  A few minutes might be of interest to those interested by non-structural damage.  Another non-negociable "F".
  • Aftershock (Again.  Always lots of aftershocks, I guess...)
    The genius who got the brilliant idea of mashing an earthquake movie with a slasher horror flick succeeded in plunging the seventh art to new lows (and burn $2M in the process).  Watching the film's thrashy characters flubber in gallons of fake blood will make your eyes bleed.  Films like this perfectly highlight the failure of the letter grade system, because F covers far to wide a range (from 0% to 60%).  This one earns a solid F - of the 0% type.  (IMDB Spec)
  • Disaster Wars: Earthquake versus Tsunami
    It is a rare event to find all critiques agreeing on the rating for a movie.  Exceptionally, here, they concurred that this one deserves a 0/10 grade (only because negative grades cannot be given).  Bears little ressemblance to actual earthquakes and tsunamis, but shows that movies can technically be done by randomly recruiting the cast in a Walmart.  Forcing detainees at Guantanamo to watch this might be a violation of human rights.
  • San Andreas
    Sure, chunks of concrete fall out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason, sure the ground moves in ways that would baffle any respectable seismologist, but... IMAX 3D!!!  How not to love nonsense when it is projected on a 70ft x 50ft screen with 30,000 Watts of sound? All done with big name actors (a first since 1976).  Just think of it as the "Fast and Furious" of earthquake movies, and enjoy the ride.  Kudos for recognizing that shattered glass falling from buildings is a hazard (not all buildings have tempered glass).  No kudos for destroying the Golden Gate Bridge... again, after Godzilla (2014), Kaiju (Pacific Rim 2013), and just about everything else (a video compilation of Hollywood attacks on Golden Gate Bridge can be seen here). San Andreas is as much about earthquakes as Star Wars is about rocket science, but lots of bonus points for its sheer entertainment value, for the link on earthquake preparedness in the lower left corner of the movie's official website and for Sia's eerie slowed-down version (first minute only) of California Dreaming from the Mama's and Papa's, raise it up to an A-.  (IMDB Spec)
  • San Andreas Quake
    This is a movie purposely made for those who, driving to Orlando, would get off the highway and follow signs to DazeneyWorld, pay admission and wonder if the drunk clown and the ramshackle House of Mirrors are the Goofy and Space Mountain that everybody talked about. To avoid at all cost, unless one is particularly fond of special effects done with paper and scissors. A solid "F".   (IMDB Spec)

 

Still waiting for the movie version of Shaken Allegiances....